In the early days, poker felt “illegal.” in Philippines. The thrills were multi-faceted, as every poker game had all the elements of a big screen thriller, but with very real repercussions. The games were held in the confines of homes belonging to the bolder aficionados. These underground sorties were played under the shadows of potential riches or ruin, where the next moment could bring the nuts, or the cops. Players could turn into millionaires overnight… or suspected felons.
From Vegas to the Philippines
It was 2005 when The Cop finally came to bust the game wide open. In the best of possible ways. The Cop was a retired police general, armed not with a service revolver, but with two of the most iconic names in the game. He campaigned to thrust poker into the mainstream with a pageantry befitting the true majesty of the game. He became known worldwide as the man who ushered the era of modern poker in Asia. He is “The Godfather of Philippine Poker,” and possibly one of the most iconic poker figures in the continent: Wenceslao “Wally” Sombero. Sombero dedicated a better portion of his life as a law enforcer in the Philippines. At the turn of the millennium, he hung up his badge and pursued “The Dream.” “I went to Las Vegas to play poker,” the 59-year-old high roller recalls. “I had a dream of bringing this wonderful game to my country and went about getting it done.” He quickly became a stalwart in the Vegas scene, earning him the moniker “The Bandit”. “I looked like a bandit and got their money like a bandit,” Sombero playfully looks back. Sombero went on to join, cash and win a variety of tournaments. But this was at a time when few people paid attention. “The Dream” persisted: “I made many friends in the poker scene there,” he said. “It became time to make ‘The Dream’ a reality.”
At that time, the Philippines—the only Catholic-majority country in Asia—was hell bent on pruning gambling. Stiff regulations were enforced and only selected hotels were given gaming licenses. Poker was not among the most popular attractions, hence its absence on all casino floors. Poker, however, was on a steep rise after a Tennessee accountant by the name of Chris Moneymaker had a historic televised triumph at the 2003 World Series of Poker. He made the catchphrase “Anyone Can Win” a stunning reality. Home games and unsupervised tilts sprouted underground. Poker players created a quiet buzz that grew steadily along with its community. “The Dream” took a megaphone to that buzz. “PAGCOR (The Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation) didn’t even have a department for poker,” Sombero continued. “It was up to me to educate them on what poker really is.”
The first ever poker tournament in Asia
Then in 2006, it happened. “I organized the first ever poker tournament in Asia (held at the PAGCOR Casino Filipino Auditorium) and helping me bring that together was no less than Jack Binion and Doyle Brunson,” he recounts. “The Dream” saw to it that two of the biggest names in all of poker came to the Philippines in 2006. Sombero even recalled Brunson’s solitary request before accepting his invitation. “Doyle whispered to me, ‘I want a gun,’” Sombero shared with his trademark big laugh. “He thought there might be hooligans walking the streets and it made him feel more secure, so I arranged for him to have a piece. He even brought it with him onto the casino floor. He was in a wheelchair so went past all the x-ray machines with no problem.”
After 2006, the buzz became an eruption. The first PAGCOR recognized card room outside of a casino was established. The Metro Card Club in Pasig City was the first, and, for the longest time, also the biggest card club in Asia. “The Metro” acknowledged Sombero’s contributions to the game by christening their high-roller room as “Wally’s Room.” . The Metro was the first result of PAGCOR’s newly created poker department. Sombero was offered the leadership, but he declined. Sombero was also offered shares at The Metro, which he also turned down. “I told them that I only want to help,” he said. “There’s still so much to be done for the game.”
Advocating for poker as a mind sport
One of the steps Sombero has taken is to bring poker to the International Mind Sports Association (IMSA) and has been one of the most vocal lobbyists for it to be recognized as a mind sport. “Poker is a true mind sport,” he said. “If chess and bridge are in their list of recognized mind sports, poker is just as mentally demanding and maybe even more challenging.” Sombero also envisions poker becoming a medal sport in the upcoming 2019 South East Asian (SEA) Games, wherein the Philippines will be the host nation. “In 2011, bridge got recognized in the SEA Games (in Indonesia) where a Filipino (Francisco Alquiros) won the gold medal,” Sombero emphasizes. “Once we get a national sports federation in place, it can happen.” Some of the world’s best players hail from this ASEAN region such as Vietnam’s Nam Le, Indonesia’s John Juanda and Thailand’s Pakinai “Tua” Lisawad. The Philippines also has a number of incredible players in Neil Arce, John Tech, Lester Edoc, Andrew Gaw, and Flo Campomanes. “Poker is a sport,” Sombero reiterates. “My dream is to see it in the Olympics, really.”
Winning the PokerStars Live Manila PhP 1M guaranteed
With all he has done for poker in Asia, “The Dream” aka “Big Wally” might just be able to pull that one out of his bag of tricks—the same way he bested the youngsters and online phenoms en route to his victory in the Pokerstars Live Manila PhP1M guaranteed event; his first title in half a decade.
In this renaissance performance, it was his final hand that typified who Wally Sombero truly is. “I had a dream,” he recounts, ala Martin Luther King. “My dream was that I would get seven-five (7-5) and hit quads to win the tournament against queens. I even saw the flop in my dream. It was 7-7-9, turn was a queen and then I would hit the seven on the river. That’s why when I saw I had 7-5 in heads-up, I knew it was time.” Amazingly, his heads-up opponent Jessie Leonarez actually had queens. The flop was indeed 7-7-9, but the turn card was a jack, and a seven did come on the river to seal the victory. “Maybe I’m just old and mistook the jack for a queen (in my dream),” Sombero laughed. “The Godfather” will be playing in the Main Event of the ongoing APPT Manila. Whether he wins, cashes or not will not be the true story.
The true story will be how he can continue to reshape the game as we know it. “The Dream” is one of the authors of Asia’s love affair with poker, and it is a story that the rest of us will keep telling.
Article by Noel Zarate